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Row, row, row your boat

250 miles of water from Mullet Key to Key Largo promise pain, strain and gain for kayakers.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001

FORT DE SOTO -- Jon Willis was skeptical.

"Paddle to Key Largo?" he asked. "Why?"

"Why not?" I asked.

Click here for larger map

Willis, an old surfing buddy, had been on one of my adventures before.

"Twenty degrees and we're stuck in the middle of the Okeefeenokee Swamp," he recalled. "You call that fun?"

Great fun. Plenty of fresh air, good food and lots of exercise. My proposed 250-mile jaunt along the west coast of Florida to the Keys would be even more entertaining, I promised.

"Come on," I pleaded. "I promise you won't get killed. And I'll buy the cigars."

He agreed to go. But it was a decision, he said, he hopes he will not regret.

We leave Monday.

If you look at a road map, St. Petersburg to Key Largo doesn't look that far. But study a nautical chart, and you'll see how daunting a task it is.

"If you have the right boat and equipment, you shouldn't have a problem," assured Steve Isaac, creator of the WaterTribe Cruising Challenge. "Just take your time and have fun."

When Isaac got the idea of staging a race from St. Petersburg to the Keys, he had no idea how many people would respond. But sea kayakers are a hardy bunch. They'll endure long hours in a cramped kayak, day after day, just to paddle with the dolphins far from shore.

"We'll have at least 30 teams from all over the country," Isaac said. "That is a pretty good turnout, considering this is a first-year event."

Willis and I paddled sit-on-top kayaks together for years, but those plastic boats are impractical for a long trip. Paddling one along the west coast would be like trying to ride a beach cruiser cross-country. You'd make it, but at what cost?

We consulted Jean Totz of Sweetwater Kayaks, and she suggested a tandem kayak.

"That way if one person gets tired, the other can paddle," she said. "Then the boat never stops moving. And that is the secret. Keep the boat moving."

To make it from St. Petersburg to Key Largo in less than eight days, we must cover 35-40 miles a day. If we spend 12 hours a day on the water, 10 of it traveling at 4 mph, we will be in Key Largo in seven days. But that doesn't take into consideration wind, tides, storms, fatigue and a long list of other annoying things sea kayakers deal with daily. "If you have the right boat, you'll make it," said Totz, who has taught hundreds of people to paddle at her Tierra Verde shop over the years.

The 22-foot tandem sea kayak Totz suggested, the Aleut Sea II, is patterned after the baidarkas the Aleuts have long paddled in the waters off Alaska, some of the most inhospitable water on Earth.

This seaworthy craft can carry more than enough food and gear to supply two men for a week. The only problem was our dream rental didn't arrive until the weekend before the trip.

That meant Willis and I had to spend the majority of two months training with the plastic sit-on-tops. These boats, a favorite of anglers, birders and triathletes looking for a cross-training alternative, are light and easy to paddle. The down side is they are wet.

Paddling Tampa Bay on a January morning when a brisk north wind has kicked up seas of 3-4 feet, you are bound to take a gallon or two of cold water in the crotch, which can be quite uncomfortable and at times discouraging.

But to truly enjoy sea kayaking, as with all other outdoor activities, you must "embrace" the elements, such as cold water, or you will be miserable. "Thank you, sir," Willis yelled as a wave soaked his shorts. "May I have another?"

In addition to helping me achieve the proper mental attitude to complete the race, Willis, a certified personal trainer, attempted to fine-tune my diet for maximum athletic performance.

"No pizza. No beer. No coffee. No donuts," he ordered.

"Those are my four basic food groups," I pleaded to no avail.

After two months, we are ready for anything.

Totz suggested we attend a few sessions at the Florida Gulf Coast Sea Kayak Symposium. The first thing we needed to learn was how to save ourselves in an emergency.

Nigel Foster, a man who paddled alone around Iceland, took us into the lagoon at Mullet Key and did his best to make us seaworthy.

"When you turn over in open water the trick is get back in the boat as quickly as possible," he said. "Let's see how you do."

We turned over and over, again and again, as Foster watched and critiqued our efforts. After a half hour or so, we got our time down to less than a minute, acceptable but far from perfect.

"Let's just try not to flip," I told Willis.

"Yes, that should be avoided if at all possible," he quipped in his perfect Queen's English.

Russell Farrow, another instructor, tried to improve our paddling stroke.

"The key is to stay loose," he said. "When it gets rough, loosen up. When it gets flat, loosen up. When you want to go fast, loosen up."

Willis and I studied the nautical charts and weather reports. We picked the other competitors' brains for any worthwhile intelligence.

"They are calling for 20 to 25 knot winds and 5-foot seas on Monday," said Lawson Mitchell, a team paddler for Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure. "That is good for me. I plan to stay on the outside and surf the 60 miles to Caya Costa."

But Mitchell is a veteran expeditioner, and I began to have second thoughts about what lies ahead.

"So do you think we'll be alright," I asked Totz, who has become our surrogate den mother. "What do you think our chances are?"

No worries, she said. "You'll do just fine."

The Ocean Warriors

Terry Tomalin (WaterTribe name: H.D. Agua)

Times Outdoors Editor since 1990, Tomalin has been paddling a variety of watercraft since he was old enough to sneak away from his mother's watchful eye. The 40-year-old St. Petersburg resident has a half-dozen kayaks, canoes, surfboards and paddleboards (and a few more his wife doesn't know about) that he escapes on whenever he can. Tomalin decided to attempt the WaterTribe Challenge hoping it would burn off the 15 extra pounds he put on since Christmas. We won't say which Christmas.

Jon Willis (WaterTribe name: Cornish Jon)

A native of Cornwall, England, Jon Willis has lived and surfed in Australia and the Canary Islands and taught scuba diving in the Mediterranean. The 41-year-old moved to the United States in 1988, participated in a variety of adventure sports and opened a fitness consulting business. As executive director of Treasure Island Charities, Willis organizes everything from kingfish tournaments to kayak races. He also is extremely proud of the fact that he weighs 15 pounds less than his paddling partner.

First of five-part series

The WaterTribe Cruising Challenge is a long race that is extremely demanding, both physically and mentally sleep deprivation, heat, cold, water dehydration and exhaustion often cause participants to become disoriented. Amnesia, hallucinations, hypothermia and other debilitating conditions are not uncommon. -- WaterTribe Website

WHO: Thirty teams of tandem and solo paddlers from Russia to California.

WHAT: 200-plus-mile sea kayak race.

WHEN: Monday through March 12.

WHERE: St. Petersburg (Fort De Soto) to Key Largo.

WHY: Why not?

* * *

The WaterTribe Cruising Challenge is an open-water kayak/canoe race from St. Petersburg to Key Largo (see map at right). The 30 teams competing for nothing more than bragging rights will have the option of paddling along the beaches if the weather is good or paddling the Intracoastal Waterway if the north wind blows.

Leg 1: Fort De Soto (Mullet Key) to Cayo Costa -- 60 miles.

Leg 2: Cayo Costa to Everglades City -- 70 miles.

Leg 3: Everglades City to Flamingo -- 60 miles.

Leg 4: Flamingo to Key Largo -- 35 miles.

(These are approximate total distances, "as the crow flies." Actual distance will vary based on weather and routes chosen.)

Staying afloat

Self rescue is a key skill in open-water kayaking. Paddlers strive for a "bomb-proof roll," which allows them to right themselves without exiting the boat after capsizing. Rolling a tandem kayak is more difficult, since paddlers must act in unison and communication is impossible underwater. Instead, many tandem paddlers learn simply to right their boat and climb back in.

STEP ONE: Jon Willis, left, and Terry Tomalin capsize their kayak during a water survival class at last weekend's Florida Gulf Coast Sea Kayak Symposium at Fort De Soto as world-renowned kayaker Nigel Foster watches.

STEP TWO: Once in the water, Willis and Tomalin right the 22-foot tandem sea kayak.

STEP THREE: Tomalin steadies the boat while Willis climbs in, then it is Tomalin's turn. The process takes about 60 seconds.

Daily Diet

(Food, Calories,Carbs, Protein, Fat, Time)

Bear Valley Bar420 68g 16g 12g 5:00AM

Pure Protein 280 13g 33g 4g 6:00AM

Ultra Fuel Drink 400 97g 1g 7:00AM

Odwalla Bar 230 13g 33g 4g 7:00AM

Ultimate Meal Bar 250 38g 13g 7g 8:00AM

Jerky & Garlic 40 4g 7.5g 1g 10:00AM

Bear Valley Bar 420 68g 16g 12g 12:00PM

Power Bar 230 45g 10g 2.5g2:00AM

Ultra Fuel Drink 400 97g 1g 2:00AM

Odwalla Bar 260 40g 8g 7g 4:00AM

Gel Shot 110 28g 0g 0g 5:00AM

Dehydrated Meal 350 20g25g 18g 7:00AM

Totals 3390 531g 163.5g 67.5g

* * *

Fluids and fuel are critical components of any extended expedition. If you run out of food, you run out of energy. To paddle 30-40 miles a day, you need a constant supply of carbohydrates. But because you can't stop the boat, you need to eat on the run. So Tomalin and Willis spent $180 on "energy" bars, above, to power them through their 12-hour days. Willis, a certified fitness trainer, devised the nutrition plan, which deviated from Tomalin's normal diet of pizza, beer and jelly doughnuts. At night, the duo will treat themselves to a variety of freeze-dried dinners, below, cooked over a small camp stove.

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